You hear people say things like, “I don’t have the willpower to do that,” as they watch their friend order the salad instead of the fried chicken. It’s as if they believe that some people were simply born with divine willpower while others were overlooked as self-discipline superpowers were being handed out. The truth is, self-discipline is a learned skill, not an innate characteristic.
It’s clear that many people don’t know how to increase their self-discipline, however. In the 2011 Stress in America Survey, 27 percent of respondents said the lack of willpower was the biggest barrier to making healthy lifestyle changes. Many of the respondents agreed that they could likely increase their willpower, but the vast majority felt like the key to improved willpower was having more time to themselves. What many of the respondents may not have recognized is that increased leisure time doesn’t automatically equate to increased self-discipline.
Instead, the only way to improve your self-discipline is through intentional and dedicated practice. As with all types of self-improvement, change is difficult and it takes time. Here are six strategies to increase your self-discipline:
1. Acknowledge Your Weaknesses – Whether cookies are the downfall to your diet, or you can’t resist checking your social media accounts every two minutes, acknowledge your pitfalls. Too often people either try to pretend their weaknesses don’t exist or they try to minimize the negative impact their bad habits have on their lives. For example, many smokers think, “I could quit if I wanted to,” because they don’t want to admit they’re hooked.
2. Establish a Clear Plan – No one wakes up one day suddenly blessed with self-discipline. Instead, you need a strategy. Whether you want to increase good habits like exercising more often, or you want to eliminate bad habits like watching too much TV, develop a plan that outlines the action steps you're going to take to reach your goals.
3. Remove the Temptations When Necessary – Although we’d all like to believe we have enough willpower to resist even the most alluring enticement, it only takes one moment of weakness to convince ourselves to cave to temptation. Making it difficult to access those temptations can be pivotal to increasing self-discipline. If your weakness is Facebook, turn off the internet while you’re working. If you can’t resist overspending when you go to the mall, leave the credit card at home and only take a small amount of cash.
4. Practice Tolerating Emotional Discomfort – It’s normal to want to avoid pain and discomfort, but trying to eliminate all discomfort will only reinforce to yourself that you can’t handle distress. We can usually stand a lot more discomfort than we think we can. Practice allowing yourself to experience uncomfortable emotions like boredom, frustration, sadness, or loneliness and increase your tolerance to the negative emotions that you may experience as you increase your self-discipline.
5. Visualize the Long-Term Rewards – You’ll be less likely to cave to temptation when you focus on the long-term gain. Giving in to today’s temptations may make you feel happy now, but long-term happiness and contentment requires you to forgo immediate gratification. Visualize yourself meeting your goals and reaping the rewards that you’ll gain by practicing self-discipline on a daily basis.
6. Recover From Mistakes Effectively – Self-discipline comes easier on some days than others. If you’re feeling stressed about an upcoming presentation, you may convince yourself to skip your workout. Or if you’re ecstatic about your most recent business deal, you may let your good habits slide for a bit. Making mistakes is part of the process to becoming better. The way you recover from those mistakes is what’s most important. The key is to acknowledge your mistakes and move on from them with even more resolve to do better next time.
It’s not surprising that those who lack self-discipline are somewhat envious of those who seem to be able to exert impressive self-control. After all, self-discipline is the key to reaching your goals and creating a better life. The good news is we all have the ability to be self-disciplined—it just takes practice.